The Toronto Maple Leafs need to start playing up to their capabilities, general manager Kyle Dubas said.
“We have to stop waiting,” Dubas told Sportsnet during the Maple Leafs’ annual coaches clinic. “We’re waiting for our potential just to happen and we have to start going out and exercising that and making it happen and forcing the other teams to respond to us.
“I think part of it is maturity, I think part of it is experience. But I think both of those things go into mindset and what the mindset of the group is.”
The Maple Leafs have invested heavily in forwards Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitchell Marner and William Nylander, but have failed to win a Stanley Cup Playoff series in each of the past four seasons. They entered the best-of-5 Stanley Cup Qualifiers as the No. 8 seed last season after finishing with a .579 points percentage (36-25-9) and were eliminated by the No. 9 seed Columbus Blue Jackets in five games.
Matthews called the loss “embarrassing” for the Maple Leafs, who haven’t advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 2004. Defenseman Jake Muzzin, who won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angeles Kings in 2014, said on Aug. 12 that Toronto needs “to dig in more.”
“Our team, of course, has greater levels to get to,” Maple Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe told TSN at Toronto’s annual Coaches Open House. “We’re not happy with how things finished off in our series against Columbus. But we’ve made some changes. We have new people coming in that I’m really excited to work with.
“Personally, it’s a fresh start and a fresh training camp, fresh team, if you will, because there are significant changes, and a chance to really get to work with what I’d like our team to be about, what I think we need to be about if we’re going to take the steps necessary.”
Some of those changes included signing forwards Joe Thornton and Wayne Simmonds, and defenseman Zach Bogosian each to a one-year contract, and defenseman TJ Brodie to a four-year contract in free agency. Dubas said he’s hoping those signings will make a difference in winning 50-50 puck battles and going to the difficult areas of the ice.
Toronto allowed 3.17 goals per game last season, tied with the Anaheim Ducks for 25th in the NHL, despite ranking third in goals per game (3.39) behind the Tampa Bay Lightning (3.47) and Washington Capitals (3.42).
“Are you willing to endure the physical duress that’s going to come on to you if we’re going to go as far as we want to go?” Dubas said. ” And do that every single night through the regular season, but more importantly, in the playoffs, and be able to score the way you have to score in the playoffs and defend the way you have to defend in the playoffs, and that gets built over time.”
Although Tavares scored an NHL career-high 47 goals in 2018-19, his first season in Toronto, and Matthews has scored 118 goals the past three seasons, tied with Edmonton Oilers forward Leon Draisaitl for third in the League in that span, it hasn’t gotten the Maple Leafs closer to their first Stanley Cup championship since 1967.
But Keefe, who replaced Mike Babcock on Nov. 20, 2019, following a 9-10-4 start, said he understands the expectations in Toronto.
“Pressure is truly a privilege,” Keefe said. “It’s something you hear a lot. When there’s pressure that means there’s great opportunity and you’re a part of something that people care about but also, they realize that you have good pieces and you have great potential. That’s exciting for me as a coach and I know it is for our players as well. We have to embrace that pressure and have that be part of what inspires us.”